What I am finding, as the Penny Dreadful episodes continue to air, that this show is more of a character study than anything. Vanessa Ives’s back story, a thing I have been craving since that infamous séance scene, raised more questions than provided answers for me. With only three episodes left in this first season, I do hope that any resolution isn’t crammed into the final episodes and that the announcement of a second season of this show allows for the mystery behind each character to unfold as patiently as we’ve seen so far. That being said, Vanessa’s back story left me unsatisfied somehow. Eva Green’s performance was quite remarkable, the highlight of “Closer Than Sisters”, but I feel as if knowing where she comes from, why she feels so indebted to Sir Malcolm and Mina, has done little to supplement the present day events of Penny Dreadful. It’s true that I am glad her past received as much attention as Caliban’s. Maybe that’s for the best that I still have questions, though knowing so much of the how of her situation and so little of the why leaves me dissatisfied.
The flashback begins, narrated by Vanessa, during happier times. She and Mina were childhood friends, their families’ estates neighboring each other. Young Vanessa is portrayed as being more daring than her friend Mina, willing to explore the darkest depths of the ocean while Mina is more wary and obedient, fearing at what her father may think. Vanessa was also very close to Mina’s brother Peter, indeed the two are practically betrothed. The children engage in an odd hobby, taxidermy, which at the time was considered quite the rage. It was common for citizens of the Victorian era to create their own collects, exotic birds being a favorite. The art of taxidermy was still being fleshed out, pardon the pun, since early on it was difficult for taxidermist to recreate specimens that looked life-like. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a game changer, showcasing preserved wildlife in natural poses found in the wild and displaying a realism not yet seen in the field. There’s a Norman Bates joke in here somewhere.
Peter is struggling with this, complaining that the monkey he is working on seems to lifeless. Young Vanessa explains to him that one must name a thing for it to be real, and goes on to show off her stuffed hawk, named Ariel after a character Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the play, Ariel is a spirit bound to serve Prospero, and considering Vanessa’s fate, this name is quite apt. I really should brush up on The Tempest since we now have two back story episodes referencing the work and I feel that to be more than a coincidence. I also find it fascinating that Vanessa, at such a young age was already occupying herself with a resurrection of sorts, that she understood a form of art that blurred the lines between life and death so well.
The Ives and Murray families unite for a welcome back dinner later that evening, with Sir Malcolm telling tales of his encounters in the jungle, of natives shouting “inyama” which is Zulu for “meat”, or in this case, “flesh”. Sir Malcolm makes it point to emphasis in his story that to the cannibals, he and his guests were something consumable. This grisly dinner talk is juxtaposed with the Ives crossing themselves before they partake of their own meal. Vanessa mentions in her voiceover that to Mina, the Catholic faith was a mystery, which is common as most denizens of England at the time were Church of England, a branch of faith brought about by Henry the VIII that relies heavily on the teachings emphasized in the Protestant Reformation. However, we shall leave Martin Luther and his theses for another day. I only mention this schism between Mina and Vanessa’s faiths to emphasize the fact that while they were indeed as close as sisters, there was still an inherent gulf between the two girls, a gulf that would only widen as the dramatic events of Vanessa Ives’s past played out.
Shortly after this scandal with the Murray’s, Vanessa falls deathly ill. She is seen having many epileptic fits and is given to long stretched of catatonic behavior as well. One cannot help but be reminded of Regan in the movie The Exorcist as Vanessa thrashes about, foaming at the mouth and scratching her own face. Vanessa’s heath is in such decline that her mother takes her to see a specialist in London. Vanessa knows the score and quickly identifies the “women’s clinic” her mother is raving about as an asylum. Asylums are a standard in realm of horror, both due to stories of historical abysmal conditions, as well as medical practices we now perceive to be barbaric. Asylums were places where the Victorian elite could send their embarrassingly wayward youths so as not to be burdened with them anymore.
other route for curing female hysteria. When surgical options are brought up, Vanessa breaks her silence. The doctor immediately shoos the parents out of the room, wishing to get a better read on his patient. Vanessa quickly begins creeping the doctor out, speaking with enthusiasm about watching slaves ships sink with all hands on deck, chains souls writhing in torment. What sets the doctor on high alert is Vanessa’s use of his middle name, something she has no way of knowing. As the doctor not-so-subtly presses a panic button on his desk, he insists that Vanessa sit down, to which the spiritualist replies “Who’s Vanessa?” and tries to bite his face off. It is at this moment that we clearly see Vanessa has not been in control of her body or actions for a long time.
The audience is treated to scenes of Vanessa’s therapy at the asylum, and while they seems barbaric, some of these practices are still used today. Obviously there is the cold-water immersion hydrotherapy mentioned before, as well as a method known as the Scotch Hose, where high pressure jets of water are used stimulate circulation as well. You can actually still get a Scotch Hose hydrotherapy treatment to this day, though I’m sure it’s dispensed much more comfortably than what we see Vanessa Ives go through.
Jump to a later date, where Vanessa has been returned to her parent’s care. Peter, bearing a much fuller beard, comes to call, as he is about to set off for Africa with his father. He wishes to see Vanessa one last time and is taken to her room, where she spends most of her hours silent, staring off into space. As Peter says his good-byes, Vanessa manages to whisper out that Africa with be the death of her childhood friend. This shakes Peter to the core and makes no mention of it to Vanessa’s mother as he leaves the house.
Devil Malcolm goes on to tell Vanessa that all that has happened is her doing, that she always had a choice whether or not to embrace this darkness. He dangles the temptation of power and sigh beyond this world in front of the spiritualist, and when she claims to not want any part of it, he knows that the desire is still in her heart, the adventure and thrill she found as a child while daring to swim out to the endless depths of the ocean. Devil Malcolm seduces Vanessa with this offer, quote lines of Keats all the while. Mama Ives is alerted to something being amiss by odd banging and grunts coming from Vanessa room. And what she finds literally shocks her to death, causing her to drop lifelessly where she stands. It is Vanessa, stark naked, seeming to be engaged in a sexual act with an invisible partner, her eyes a milky white. In some witch trial, those accused of witchcraft were said to have had sex with the Devil to receive their powers. This is more than likely the case for Vanessa Ives and whoo boy is it graphic.
The episode ends with Vanessa completing her latest letter, adding it to a box filled with hundreds of the same. Who knows if they all contain the same message or different tellings of their shared history. Vanessa ends the latest letter with a post script, saying that while Sir Malcolm loves his daughter enough to save her, Vanessa loves her enough to let her die.
So, what did you think of Vanessa Ives’s back story, be sure to let us know in the comments!
Eva Green gave an amazing performance in this episode, there is no doubt about that. She carries the entire 50 minutes and expertly leads us through Vanessa’s fall from grace, torment, and rebirth. Her back story I think may have felt lacking to me due to the hype we all put upon it. This was the story we’ve been waiting for, we the audience have projected our own expectations and theories upon it. I just feel that things that didn’t need as much explaining received more screen time than those that did. I wish more time had been spent on Vanessa’s illness and less on her relationship with Peter.
Mirrors play an important role in this episode. Obviously, we use them to reflect, pun intended, upon ourselves, which is what Vanessa does with her letters. Mirrors have also been thought to be portals for demons and spirits to enter rooms, like with Bloody Mary or the Candyman. It’s no coincidence that mirrors are always present when Vanessa is visited by her demon. Some superstitions state that a mirror in the room of a dying person will trap their spirit. This feeds into the mirrors behind the eyes of Vanessa’s taxidermy hawk that make it seem life-like. If this sounds familiar, Francis Dolarhyde aka the Tooth Fairy from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon replaced the eyes of his victims with shards of mirror so it looks as if they were alive and watching his evil deeds. When the demon-possessed Vanessa says she wants to put mirrors behind the eyes of the world, this could mean that the demon wanted to taint the world to such a degree that it could pass freely, that the world would become a hospitable place for evil to inhabit. Surely a nod to the impending apocalypse involving the ancient Egyptian deities, where darkness will engulf the world.
Next week’s episode is entitled “What Death Can Join Together”. I’m interested to see with so few episodes left where the present day story will turn next. I hope you can join us next week!